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The Long Run: A shifting Paradigm
For years, the venerable long run was the single most important staple of any marathon training program. The physiological benefits are well documented, but there is the added psychological benefit which comes from asking your body to accomplish something it may never have done before. The idea of completing your first 20-miler brings with it much apprehension, but also much satisfaction. And that satisfied feeling can get stored away and called upon when you are in the midst of doing the actual marathon and need to draw from the waters of that mental well.
Having said that, what I am about to discuss will seem like heresy, but it is based in well-researched sports science. Here goes: Unless you can complete a 20-miler in three hours or less, you can do more harm to yourself than good. To put this in better context, most research has found that running for a period of 2-3 hours returns the most physiological benefit, whereas anything beyond the 3 hour mark can start to have deleterious effects; the science behind the long run is to stimulate adaptations, and running it is not a means to an end. Imagine what it would be like if we always had to run for the distance we were training for. If that were the case, how could you possibly ever recover if every Sunday you had to run a marathon? You would spend the entire remainder of the week, and then some, walking around very gingerly, going down stairs backwards, and having every muscle below the waist be sore to the touch! What adaptation is going to happen under this scenario? The answer is: None!
In most beginner marathon schedules that you find on-line, many of them include long runs that eventually build up to at least a 20-miler; some even higher than that. The problem is that in many of these schedules the long run constitutes at least fifty percent of the total weekly mileage, and this is completely out of whack! Most sports science research, along with many nationally recognized distance coaches, suggest that the long run should make up anywhere from 25-30% of your overall weekly mileage. It should compliment your training regimen, provide the appropriate stimulus for adaption and not require more than a couple of days to recover from. If this news is causing you some anxiety in that you may never get to 20 miles except on the day of the marathon, please don’t dismay; this is why we have the other days of the week to train. Adaptation is not the result of any single run (long or otherwise), but, instead, is the cumulative effects of all the many runs you do. All the many runs over the weeks leading up to the marathon, along with the appropriate rest and recovery, will get you to the finish line.
Coach Sam Davis USATF Level Two Certified Coach firstname.lastname@example.org